Editor’s note: This week, we continue our 5-part series of excerpts from Peter Calthorpe’s book, “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” This is installment number three. Thanks to Island Press, a few lucky Streetsblog readers will be selected to receive a free copy of the book. To enter the contest, fill out this form.
For many people, urban is a bad word that implies crime, congestion, poverty, and crowding. For them, it represents an environment that moves people away from a healthy connection with nature and the land. Its stereotype is the American ghetto, a crime-ridden concrete jungle that simultaneously destroys land, community, and human potential. The reaction to this stereotype has been a middle-class retreat into the closeted world of single-family lots and gated subdivisions in the suburbs. As a result, much of the last half century’s planning has been directed toward depopulating cities, whether through the satellite towns of Europe or the suburbs of America.
But, for many others, the word urban represents economic opportunity, culture, vitality, innovation, and community. This positive reading is now manifest in the revitalized centers of many of our historic cities. In these core areas, the public domain—with its parks, walkable streets, commercial centers, arts, and institutions—is once again becoming rich and vibrant, valued and desirable. There is new life in many city centers and their public places, from cafés and plazas to urban parks and museums—ultimately drawing people back to the city.
In fact, since 2000, many of our major cities have increased their share of new home construction while their region’s suburbs have declined. For example, in 2008, Portland issued 38 percent of all the building permits within its region, compared to an average of 9 percent in the early 1990s; Denver accounted for 32 percent, up from 5 percent; and Sacramento accounted for 27 percent, up from 9 percent. There is an even stronger trend toward urban redevelopment in the largest metropolitan regions. New York City accounted for 63 percent of the building permits issued within its region. By comparison, the city averaged about 15 percent of regional building permits during the early 1990s. Similarly, Chicago now accounts for 45 percent of the building permits within its region, up from just 7 percent in the early 1990s.13 This represents a dramatic turnaround as cities regain their roles as centers of innovation, social mobility, artistic creativity, and economic opportunity.